Well, you can't say the mob doesn't have chutzpah.

In a daring comeback, the Philadelphia-South Jersey Mafia allegedly made a move inside Atlantic City's hottest casino, the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, by taking $22 million in illegal sports bets from young, hip gamblers in the casino's high-stakes poker room.

It could be the biggest mob infiltration of a casino since the Atlantic City gambling parlors opened in 1978, if defendants are convicted.

Yesterday, reputed mob capo Michael "Mikey Lance" Lancellotti, 45, and alleged soldier Anthony Nicodemo, 36, both of Philadelphia, were charged with conspiracy to promote gambling.

New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram identified the ringleader as Andrew Micali, 32, of Ventnor. He worked with a partner, a reputed major bookmaker, Jack M. Buscemi, 50, of Mullica Hill, N.J., who allegedly received a percentage of the gambling proceeds.

A total of 23 managers, bankers, casino employees and agents were charged in the ring.

"Micali frequently communicated with Lancellotti," according to a law-enforcement source familiar with the probe.

Micali allegedly worked with poker-room supervisor Joseph Wishnick, 42, of Brigantine. Both were charged with promoting gambling. Micali was also charged with money laundering and criminal usury.

Like a few others in the ring, Micali, Lancellotti and Nicodemo were longtime pals of jailed mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino. No mention was made of reputed current mob boss Joseph Ligambi yesterday.

Alleged mob associate Vincent Procopia, 41, of Brigatine, was charged with promoting gambling, while reputed associates Steven "Stevie Gongs" Casasanto, 37, and William DePena, 39, both of Philadelphia, were issued complaint summonses along with 16 others.

The 18 were charged with promoting gambling, money laundering or conspiracy.

Lancellotti was the highest-ranking alleged mobster arrested in a New Jersey gambling ring since 2004, when reputed underboss Joseph "Mousie" Massimino was jailed for 10 years for operating a large-scale sports-gambling ring in South Jersey and Philadelphia - a ring similar to the alleged current one.

You might say the mob operated under the nose of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission - except that the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement; the state police-organized crime, gambling-bureaus and digital-technology units; and 10 other law-enforcement agencies worked on the 18-month probe.

Milgram said that investigators were tipped off in March 2006 by an informant as to what to look for in the overhead surveillance cameras in the poker room.

The Borgata security and surveillance departments helped investigators watch six casino employees, reputed mob associates and others in off-the-books exchanges of cash and casino chips during illegal betting in the poker room.

Gamblers learned of the illegal gaming - which authorities claimed siphoned $22 million from legitimate casino games - by word-of-mouth.

Losing gamblers were forced to borrow money at 50 percent annual interest to cover their debts.

Investigators followed the money to three Philadelphia "wire rooms," including one in a Micali-owned home, where each bettor's winnings and losses were calculated so that payouts or paybacks could be made.

During its "massive" money laundering, Milgram said, the ring used a method called "chip washing" - "taking cash, turning it into chips, 'washing' them by betting and then turning them in, and taking cash out."

During court-approved searches, Micali's bank account - with more than $200,000 - was frozen.

Also seized was $40,000 in chips and cash in Micali's safe deposit box at the Borgata, as well as gambling records, a laptop and a .357 caliber semi-automatic handgun inside his Ventnor home.

In Philadelphia, gambling records, computers, a handgun and $20,000 in cash were seized at three homes, including one owned by Micali.

This was Milgram's first big mob case, yet she was reluctant to mention the mob at an Atlantic City news conference, according to observers, even when reporters bombarded her with mob questions.

Usually in mob cases, defendants are charged with the more serious charge of racketeering conspiracy, but the AG's office charged the suspects with promoting gambling in a casino. It also issued the complaint summonses, which are like traffic tickets. The illegal operation did not affect the normal daily gaming on the casino floor, Milgram said.

"They sought to escape detection by enlisting casino employees in their crimes," Milgram said.

The casino employees charged with promoting illegal gambling included: Borgata poker-room supervisor Paul Parks, 31; Borgata poker dealers Austin Johnson-Brown, 35, and Robert McEwen, 26; Borgata bartender Matthew Weyler, 26; and Tropicana poker-room supervisor Jeffrey Ebert, 45. Ebert was also charged with criminal usury.

"I'm pleased to say they greatly underestimated our vigilance and determination to keep organized crime out of Atlantic City casinos," added Milgram.

If convicted, casino employees could lose their licenses. *

The Associated Press contributed to this report.